Place Names of Ross and Cromarty

Attribution: extracted from Blaeu’s Atlas Novus (17th Century)

The Introduction to Prof. Watson's 'Place Names of Ross and Cromarty'


I - Historical.

Physical Features.

The County of Ross and Cromarty, including Lewis, the northern and larger part of the Long Island, is the third largest in Scotland. Its mainland part extends from sea to sea, and falls naturally into three divisions, Easter, Wester, and Mid Ross, each of which possesses a character of its own. Much of Easter Ross, between the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths, is distinctly Lowland or even English in type. Its great alluvial plain, Machair Rois, the plain of Ross, comprises some of the richest agricultural land in Scotland; much of it stands only a few feet above the sea level, and the skeleton of a “cetaceous animal”1 found at Fearn proves that it was actually covered by the sea at no very remote period as geological time is reckoned. With it goes the large peninsula known as the Black Isle, between the Firths of Cromarty and Inverness, not level like the Machair, but sloping gently to both firths, and nowhere particularly Highland in aspect. Mid-Ross may be said to extend from the western watershed to the uplands of Alness and Rosskeen. It is a region of glens, straths, and streams, dominated by the massive bulk of Ben Wyvis, and drains through the Conon and its tributaries Orrin, Meig, Blackwater into the head of the Cromarty Firth. Wester Ross is the long strip to the west of the watershed, between the latter and the sea, deeply indented by sea lochs and seldom far from sea influence. The great “hinterland” of Wester and Mid-Ross is wholly mountain and moor, with the exception of the beautiful valleys of the Kincardine Carron and its tributaries, and the Oykell and Kyleside Valley, the latter facing Sutherland.

Ptolemy's Account.

Our earliest information about the inhabitants of Ross comes from the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived about 120 A.D., and wrote an account of Britain, in which he locates a number of places and tribes, the position of which can be determined with more or less confidence. He states that from the Lemannonius Sinus (Loch Fyne) to the estuary of the Varar (Beauly Firth), and on the east side of Drumalban, lay the Caledonii; westward of them were the Cerones or Creones. These, then, lay on the southern border of Ross. In the district corresponding to Ross were the Carnonacae on the west coast, the Decantae in Easter Ross from the Beauly to the neighbourhood of Edderton, and the Smertae, who may have occupied the valleys of the Carron, the Oykell, and the Shin. Northwards of these lay three tribes, the Caereni and Cornavii in north-west Sutherland and Caithness, and in the east of Sutherland the Lugi.

The Picts.

At a later period all the tribes to the north of the Roman wall between the Firths of Forth and Clyde were included under the general name of Picts, those north of the Grampians being referred to as Northern Picts, and the others as Southern Picts. The headquarters of the King of the Northern Picts at the time of Columba’s visit in 565 were near Inverness; his authority extended at least as far as the Orkneys, probably to the Shetlands. With regard to the Northern Picts, two questions arise which have to be kept separate, the question of race, and the question of language. On the latter point the place-names should throw some light; here it is enough to say that most authorities now agree that the Picts spoke a Celtic language not of the Gaelic but of the Welsh or Brittonic type. When this Celtic language was introduced into the North it is hard to say ; certainly it was there in the first century, for Ptolemys names are Celtic. Good authorities place the coming of the Celts into Britain about 600 B.C., others much earlier. One thing is certain, that when they came they found in possession another people less highly civilised, of a different race, with different manners and customs. And, as Celtic influence would reach the north last, and would long be comparatively weak, it is reasonable to suppose that there these primitive people would survive longest and have most influence on the new-comers. In point of fact, the northern Picts show very distinct traces of non-Celtic institutions and customs in respect of their family relations and their mode of succession. It may be concluded, therefore, that the Picts were a mixed race, combining a Celtic strain with a strong dash of non-Celtic and probably non-Aryan blood. In very remote places such as Lewis this non-Celtic element would naturally be strongest, and indeed, is probably still recognisable.

The Scots.

In the early centuries of the Christian era Scots from Ireland began to settle among the Picts of the West Coast. The first colony on record was led in the second century by Cairbre Riada, whence the name Dàl-Riada’s or Riada’s lot.1 In 501 the coming of the sons of Erc with a strong following marks the establishment of Dalriada as a Scottish kingdom roughly co-extensive with the modern Argyle. The influence of the Gaelic-speaking Dalriadic Scots gradually spread northward along the coast and among the islands. When it reached the west coast of Ross we cannot say exactly, but it is significant that in 673 Malruba, an Irish priest and noble, founded the monastery of Applecross, and it is probably safe to assume that at that date Applecross was well witin Dalriadic territory. There are at least two other indications of the rapid spread of the Gaels on the west. When the Norsemen came in793, they called the Minch Skotland-fjör_r, the firth of the land of the Scots; the province of Argyle extended from the Clyde to Lochbroom, and Argyle (Gael. Earra-Ghaidheal, older Airer Goedel), means the bounds of the Gael or Scots from Ireland. Not the least difficult of the problems in early Scottish history is the manner in which the language of the Gaels supplanted that of the Picts. For the west coast the answer, as has been seen, is easy: it was settled by Scots at an early date. In the east various causes can be seen to have co-operated. In the first place, Gaelic was the language of the more highly civilised people, which made it a priori unlikely that it should give way to Pictish. Another factor, the importance of which can hardly be over-estimated, was the influence of the Celtic Church. Again, the advent of the Norse on the West Coast must have had the effect of driving the Gaelic-speaking settlers eastward. Lastly, we cannot tell how long Pictish survived in Easter Ross. It is possible and even probable that, just as on the West there was a period when first Gaelic and Pictish, then Gaelic and Norse, were spoken side by side, so on the East Coast, Pictish, Gaelic, and Norse were spoken concurrently. Pictish has, in any case, left very strong traces in Easter Ross place-names.

The Norsemen.

The Noresemen began to make plundering expeditions on the coasts of Britain before the end of the eighth century. In 793 they sacked Lindisfarne; in 798 they plundered part of Man and the Hebrides; in 802 they ravaged Iona, and in 806 they slew sixty eight of the monastic family there; during the same period they made incursions on the Irish coasts also. Monasteries, being rich and defenceless, were special objects of attack, and there can be little doubt, though record is silent on the subject, that to them was due the destruction of Malruba’s’Monastery of Applecross.

i. In the Isles.

By degrees they began to settle both in Ireland and in the Isles. In 872 Harold Harfagr, King of Norway, found it necessary to lead an expedition against the western Vikings, when he subjugated Orkney, Shetland and the Sudreys (the Hebrides) as far south as Man. But as in Ireland settlement began in the first quarter of the ninth century, it is probable that the Hebrides, which lie on the way to Ireland were occupied long before King Harold’s expedition. What is known of the subsequent history of the Norse settlements in the Western Isles had been related too often to need repetition.1 The Isles were finally ceded by Norway in 1266, in consequence of the disastrous battle of Largs, having been more or less under Norse influence for about 470 years. For much of that time the Norse language must have been predominant; the Isles were not felt to be part of Scotland; mainland Gaels referred to them as Innse Gall, the Isles of the strangers. And if Norse was spoken in Lewis in 1266, as it doubtless was, it is not too much to suppose that it was not wholly extinct at the time of Bannockburn or even later. Hence at once the preponderance of Norse names and their remarkable freshness as preserved in common speech.

ii. On the West Coast.

The Norse occupation of the western mainland probably began later, ended earlier, and, to judge from the place-names, was less continuous in extent. On the west of Ross they seem to have selected the parts most fertile and best adapted for grazing. Kintail and Glenshiel show very little Norse influence; it was strong in Gairloch and round the shores of Loch Maree. But in no part of Wester Ross did the old Celtic nomenclature wholly give way; from Loch Duich to Loch Broom not only old Gaelic but even Pictish names are well in evidence.

iii. On the East Coast.

On the eastern mainland, according to the Sagas Thorstein the Red, together with Sigurd of Orkney, conquered and ruled over Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Moray, and more than half of Scotland.1 Their exploits here referred to took place about 875, and the net result of them appears to have been that the Norsemen retained possession at least as far south as Dingwall. Over a hundred years later, cicr. 980, Sigurd, Earl of Orkney, defeated Finlay, Mormaer of Moray, at Skida Myre in Caithness, and established his power over “dominions in Scotland, Ross and Moray, Sutherland and the Dales,” Earl Sigurd fell at Clontarf, 1014. The Norse power on the mainland attained its highest point under his son Thorfinn, of whom the Sagas say that he held “nine Earldoms in Scotland, the whole of the Sudreys, and a large territory in Ireland.”2 He died in 1064, and after his time the Norse dominions gradually contracted to Caithness. “Many rikis which the Earl had subjected fell of, and the inhabitants sought the protection of those native chiefs who were territorially born to rule over them.”3 At the beginning of the twelfth century Norse may still have been spoken in Easter Ross, but the power of the native chiefs were reviving, and by the middle of it we find Malcolm MacHeth in the position of Earl of Ross. The total duration of the Norse supremacy in Easter Ross was rather less than 200 years. The place-names are instructive. No name of Norse origin appears south of the Beauly valley. The centre of administration was Dingwall, Thing-völlr, plain of the Thing, the Norse court of justice. Some important valleys well inland bear Norse names, Alladale, Dibidale, Strathrusdale, Scatwell. The Black Isle shows only two or three; elsewhere the proportion is about the same for the area as on the West Coast. To Norse influence perhaps may be due the curious fact that none of the larger streams that flow into the Cromarty Firth – Uarie, Averon, Conon -show an Inver or an Aber. Such Invers as exist belong to small streams, the largest being the Peffery, which gives Inver-feoran (Inbhir-pheofharain), the Gaelic name of Dingwall. In the Dingwall Charters, the estuary of the Conon appears as Stavek, plainly Norse, probably Staf-vìk, Staff-bay, a name which it may be suggested, supplanted and old *Aberconon, to be in its turn forgotten.

In Wester Ross the Norsemen met the Gael; on the eastern side they doubtless met both Gael and Pict.

English Influence.

The twelfth century saw the triumph of Gaelic over Pictish and Norse; and probably this period (circ.1100-1200) was the only one since the coming of the Gaels, in which one language and only one was spoken throughout the mainland of Ross. Under Pictish rule, Ross was governed from Inverness; in the time of Norse supremacy its over-lords hailed from Orkney. The twelfth century was a transition stage; at its close Ross was fast coming into touch with the south of Scotland, and to some extent with the language of the Lowland Scots. That English is of long standing in the north is proved by the place-names Wardlaw, near Beauly, which appears on record in 1210 Wardelaue, the hillock where watch and ward was kept by the retainers of the Norman Lord of the Aird, John Byset. No Norman baron, however, obtained a grant of land in Ross; English was introduced there through the Royal Castles and the Church. In 1179 William the Lion founded the Castles of Dunskaith in Nigg, and Eddirdover, now Redcastle. In the next century we find the Castles of Cromarty and Dingwall upheld by the Crown and the Castle of Avoch belonging to the De Moravia family. In all of these the garrison was, doubtless, composed chiefly of Lowlanders. The seat of the Bishopric of Ross was at Rosemarkie; in 1227 the Chapter of Ross consists wholly, with one exception,1of clerics bearing English names. So with the Bishops of Ross, all except the first, Macbeth. The other chief centre of ecclesiastical influence in Easter Ross at this period was the Abbey of Fearn, founded circ. 1225, whose Abbots as a rule came from Whithorn in Galloway, and may or may not have known Gaelic; their names are usually English. The fame of St Duthac’s shrine at Tain was also a factor of some importance in attracting Lowland pilgrims. In 1306 we actually find Walter, son of the Earl of Ross, a scholar at Cambridge. All this, of course, had little effect on the native Gaelic, but it shows that in the vicinity of Castle, Catherdral, and Abbey, as well as among the upper classes, there must have been some acquaintance with English. And at the present day we find that it is precisely in these places— Tain, Cromarty, Rosemarkie, Avoch and, to a less extent, Dingwall-that Gaelic, except for importations, has practically died out. The Castles of the West Coast, Strome and Ellandonan, were garrisoned not by King’s men, but by Gaelic speaking clansmen of native chiefs, and were oftener held against the King than for him.

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